In this episode:
- Helping a team make a decision (even when they don’t want to)
- Google’s research on what it takes to create a high performing team, and
- An INCREDIBLE interview with Paula Paul about why diversity matters to teams. It’s powerful, educational and may help you create better products, too.
- Code.org – learning resources for all ages, and sponsors of the yearly ‘Hour of Code’ in December (volunteers welcome!)
- TEALS – increasing access to CS education in our school systems
- Technical? Non-Technical? Both!
- How Men & Women See the Workplace Differently
- Paula’s BuzzFeed article
- Reply All podcast that changed my thinking about diversity
- Leslie Miley’s data-filled article about the problem of diversity
- NY Times article on Google’s Project Aristotle
- Project Oxygen infographic
Paula: I am the only female software engineer. I’m an architect but the rest of the software engineers are all male and the only women are program managers and quality assurance folks. So I also think that there’s a little bit of a, you know, where are people comfortable seeing women, and I think that people are comfortable seeing women in those caring roles like program management and quality assurance but there’s still a stigma around engineering that’s kind of goofy to me.
Man: Becoming a Geek Leader Season 3 Episode 1.
Sponsored by BrightHill Group’s professional speaking services.
Are you a member of a professional association? Is your regional state or national group planning their upcoming annual meeting? I can help your meeting planners with keynotes and workshops on topics like communication, leadership, delegation, planning, or conflict resolution. Also, is your company planning an all-hands meeting? I can help your leaders plan a productive and memorable event. I can professionally facilitate your meeting and deliver content that is completely aligned with your goals. Here’s what Aaron Kuan [SP] said after having me speak for her statewide association.
Aaron: I really enjoy working with Tom because he is practical and down to earth. He brings really good content. He’s very engaging as a speaker and I think the audience really connects with him. They not only get the content but they also get an entertaining presentation. So I would definitely recommend working with him. I will certainly call him in the future for any events that I have.
Tom: Check out brighthillgroup.com/speaking, that’s brighthillgroup.com/speaking for testimonials, videos of me on stage, information about my most popular topics and more. Welcome to the Becoming a Geek Leader podcast. My name is Tom Cooper. As a geek, I’m on a mission to figure out better ways to lead others at work and at home. Through the Becoming a Geek Leader podcast, I’m sharing what I’m learning so I can help make you more effective at leading people too. Ready?
Welcome to Season 3 of the podcast. I have to tell you, I’m really excited about what’s coming up. I’ve heard great feedback from you and I’m looking forward to tackling topics like goal-setting, priorities, getting others to take responsibility and have a sense of ownership, building consensus, better influencing skills, career growth for geeks, and so much more. Now today, I’m tackling three areas that I think are gonna be really powerful. First, I’m gonna answer a question about how to get a team to make a decision when they don’t wanna make a decision. Then in the Mentoring Segment, I’m gonna talk about how Google used data to identify the core characteristics of high-performing teams. And then, in the Thought Leader Segment, I’m really excited about…I’m sharing an interview I did on the importance of diverse teams with my guest Paula Paul. This is gonna be an action-packed episode and I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. After you’ve listened to this episode, drop me a line and tell me what you think. Let’s not mess around. Let’s get started right now.
Man: Level two, team member. Level two is where you work well with others, and together, you all succeed.
Tom: Today, I’m answering your email from Bill, who writes, “Tom, I’m responsible for a project where the team members come from different parts of the company. I keep having the same challenge over and over again. I just can’t get everyone to agree. Without a decision, progress just stops. We have meeting after meeting and I still can’t get them to make a decision. How do I get this done? I feel like I’m hurting cats.” Bill, I know exactly what you mean. It is so frustrating to have no decision. Frankly, no decision is worth than a bad decision because at least with a bad decision, you have an opportunity to learn something. No decision is just wasted time.
So, I wanna quickly share a tool which may be helpful to you. When it comes to decision-making, most of the time, you might have one, maybe two people who are passionately in favor of an idea. Then you’ve got maybe one or two who feel like, “This is a bad idea,” and then everybody else falls into what I call the “mushy middle.” Now, some people lean toward yes from the mushy middle. Some people lean toward no. But overall, they just don’t care. They certainly don’t care enough to go on record and take a chance on being wrong or criticized so they say nothing.
Now, one way to get a decision when you’re in this situation is to take a vote by hand. And you’re gonna ask them to vote for one of three different categories and the categories are: I love it, I hate it, or I can live with it. Now, let’s say that your team needs to decide about the new blue widget, whatever that is. You’ve had some questions about it, a discussion but you feel like you’re treading water. You don’t have 100% agreement and you feel like you’re stuck. So Bill, here’s what you can say, “Okay, guys, we’ve talked about the new blue widget question and I think we’re at a point where, based on what we know right now, we need to make a decision. Now, I know we don’t have 100% certainty. There are still some unanswered questions but I’m pretty sure that we need to make a go/no-go decision now. I’m not gonna put you on the spot, but I am gonna ask you to vote for one of three options.
One, “I love it, this new blue widget is the best thing ever.” Two, “I hate it. The new blue widget is a terrible idea.” Or, and now this one’s an important one, “I can live with it. The new blue widget might be a great idea, it might be a bad idea, but based on what I know right now, I can live with it.” You see, this way you’re giving people two get-out-of-jail-free cards. Get-out-of-jail-free card number one: based on what we know now. I mean, you might find out something tomorrow that convinces you this is a terrible decision. But based on what we know right now, we’re making a decision. Get-out-of-jail-free free card number two: I can live with it. This lets the mushy middle safely say, “I don’t care. Do whatever you want.”
Bill, this is a tool I have used lots of times to help bring a group to consensus. Love it, hate it, can live with it. It’s an easy way for you to find out who opposes the idea. Now, how to handle the guy who hates it, that’s a topic for a future segment. But I hope this helps with your situation, and that’s today’s Coaches Mailbox segment.
Man: Level three, Team Leader. Level three, as the boss of a team, your job is to recruit and develop individuals and team members who follow your lead.
Tom: In today’s Mentoring Segment, I wanna talk about what Google can teach us about effective teams. Google’s got a reputation for being one of the most intelligent engineering companies in the world. They’re very geek-oriented and they hire the smartest possible people they can hire. Now, as they’ve been on their journey, for a while, they even eliminated manager positions altogether. They had no managers at all, and they learned that simply didn’t work for a whole bunch of reasons. So, Google did what they do well. They used data and analytics to help identify what characteristics are found in great bosses.
Now, you think, in a high engineering company, that the best engineering ideas would matter the most, but what’s fascinating, really fascinating is that geek skills came in eighth out of eight possible factors in a good boss. Eighth! Now, it wasn’t that it wasn’t on the list at all, but what surprises me is that it was so low on the list. It’s fascinating. Have you checked out the show notes? You can find my infographic that shows all eight factors in being a great boss and the order of importance, as Google found out in their Project Oxygen.
Now, building on that knowledge, Google began to ask the question, what makes some teams better than other teams? What makes some teams better than other teams? And again, using data they collected from their internal research as well as a ton of behavioral psychology research, they did identify patterns of what things are present in high-performing teams. Now, this was not an easy problem to solve. They looked hard at the data to see what they could learn, and initially, they were stumped.
Abeer Dubey is a manager in Google’s People Analytics Division and he said, “At Google, we’re really good at finding patterns. There weren’t strong patterns here.” And back in 2010, psychologists from Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, and Union College did some research on effective team performance. And I’m gonna quote from a New York Times article on this topic that says, “Researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished good teams from dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team even if, individually, all the members were exceptional bright.”
Now, do you know this is true? I mean, have you worked on a team with some really, really smart people who couldn’t get along, who couldn’t work as a team? We see this in sports. We see it in work. We know this is true. Just because you’re super smart doesn’t mean you’re gonna work well as a team. So Google continued to crunch the numbers and they surveyed team members and leaders, and you know what they discovered? They discovered that human connection, personal connection is critical to high-performing teams. If you want the best team performance, you have to create teams with norms that elevate the connections of people with each other. Your team needs to listen to each other, provide a safe place for people to express their ideas in a way that won’t make them face personal criticism or character assassination. Now, it seems kind of obvious but it’s really, really powerful. If you can create a safe place for your team to communicate honestly with each other, it’s gonna dramatically improve your team performance.
See, I’m gonna include a link to the New York Times article on the website on the show notes because it’s definitely worth your time to read. Here’s the thing. The people on your team, they’re people. They need to feel heard and they need to know that the contributions they’re making matter to you, to the team, and to the company. I’m sure you’ve heard me say before that I believe that because people matter, we must lead them well. Even a hardcore engineering firm discovered that because people matter, we must lead them well. And that’s today’s Mentoring Segment.
Thought Leader Segment.
Man: Level two, team member. Level two is where you work well with others, and together you all succeed.
Tom: Now, today’s Thought Leader Segment, I wanna talk a little bit about diversity and inclusion. And as a white guy in tech, I’ve always known that the field has been male-dominated. I mean, I went to a small school and I only remember a couple of women in my computer science classes. And my adviser and one of my professors was a woman and she helped me a great deal. And I also have a good friend who worked in the game industry and he told me about the misogyny and just the discrimination that he saw in that industry. And I’ve got friends who work in Silicon Valley and they talk about the boys’ club. But that just hasn’t been my experience. And looking back, I think what I’m realizing now is that I was pretty fortunate because, in my career, I had the opportunity to work with lots of people who didn’t look like me.
I could think of numerous female engineers with whom I worked and I’m grateful for their work, and what I learned from them on the journey. And I also built a team when I was working as a technology leader multiple times and I found, as I was recruiting the best fit for the team, I had the opportunity to acquire team members who didn’t look like me from a race and national origin perspective or from a gender perspective. And so, it really didn’t connect with me that this was a significant problem. And I’ve been ruminating on these ideas for a while and I confess that it was only after I heard a recent Reply All podcast episode with Leslie Miley, who was talking about the challenges of diversity, that I really began to reflect on this issue in more depth. And Leslie was the most senior black engineer at Twitter and he got frustrated because Twitter apparently wasn’t super committed, from his perspective, to really changing the picture of Twitter.
One of the things he said on the podcast that really hit me is he said, “There’s a ton of research about diversity making teams better. It’s ridiculous we’re not talking about it.” And I’ve not thought about that. I’ve never thought about the issue of what research there might be, and he ended up leaving Twitter over that issue. And that leads me to ask the question, what significant breakthroughs in technology simply are not happening because our teams are too homogenous? They’re too white. They’re too male. So with that in mind, I wanted to bring in someone to talk about this issue from a different perspective, and I had the opportunity last year to hear Paula Paul speak on this topic and I thought it’d be great to have her be a part of the podcast. I’ve told you, I’m on my mission to learn how to be a better influencer at working at home and I’ll be sharing what I’m learning and that’s the really the goal in today’s Thought Leader Segment.
Now, Paula says that she entered the workforce as a software engineer and product developer with IBM in the early 1980s. And since then, she’s shipped commercial software, Evangelyze.net for Microsoft, and held executive positions in corporate IT. After flipping the table mid-career, she came back to technology through a passion for teaching people to code. Paula’s currently an architect with AmWINS Group, Inc. and enjoys work in the community as an Anita Borg Institute Syster, diversity speaker, and mentor. Paula, welcome to the podcast.
Paula: Well, thank you, Tom, and thanks for the opportunity.
Tom: I’m excited to dig into this, and I’d like to hear from you about what are some significant things that you think about when it comes to the question of diversity and inclusion in technology?
Paula: Oh sure. It always goes back to people and you can have all the studies out there that illustrate the benefits of diversity and even going back in history to things like the development of airbags in cars and currently even just voice recognition systems that are keyed more to certain types of voices, male voices, and the airbags in early car systems that were geared towards the 175-pound male. So there’s all sorts of evidence that diverse teams produce better products, but it’s tough when you’re the actual people involved on the team and people in general including women and everyone. People are more comfortable working with people like them. And I do go back to my early days at IBM and, you know, my first manager was black. The manager of the A-team developers was a woman. And by the time I left IBM in the early ’90s, I worked with people who were openly gay and lesbian.
So, those were my early experiences in my career 30 years ago. So that shaped my perception of what it was like to work in technology. But when I worked with people who have been in technology 4, 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years, I do understand, I grew to understand over time that their perceptions were shaped differently by, you know, sort of the media glorification of Silicon Valley and the geek persona where it’s an aggressive male field. It wasn’t that way when I started, and in fact, many of the significant contributions to technology have been from women. It’s just that recent history has painted it differently. But I think we’re starting to, by talking about this topic, we’re actually starting to change that perception. So I’m very happy that you’re doing this podcast and appreciate that you’re including me.
Tom: Oh, glad to have you in. And, you know, as you’re talking about that, I was just reflecting on the fact that my mom wrote a payroll system for her employer and she was employed as a psychometrician but she was smart enough in the technology space to be able to step in and do those things. She’d been watching me do geeky stuff even as a kid and she was intrigued by it and got involved with that. And my wife’s mom actually worked for the NSA and she was a developer working for the NSA many, many decades ago. So, you know, it’s interesting how, to your point, that there was a season in time where there was a perspective about what it meant to work in technology. And it’s funny because I was talking to my mother-in-law about this recently and she said, “Well, I got a degree in psychology. I thought I would, you know, pursue that type of work. And then I found out that I was really good at mathematics and the NSA was recruiting for people who were good at mathematics. And so, I ended up, you know, going to a job fair and I found myself working at Fort Meade.” She didn’t set out to be a developer. She set out to, you know, to do something entirely different, but it turned out that that was a fit.
Tom: So, when you think about that view that you talked about, that glorification of the boys’ club, male-dominated, you know, kind of thing in Silicon Valley, what do you think we could do to help change the perception of what it’s like to work in technology?
Paula: Well, I think you pointed out something really important, that you had early influences in your life that showed you, you know, all sorts of different kinds of people working in technical fields, mother, you know, other female people in your life. So I think we lost a little bit of that portrayal in the media. If you Google “software engineer…” just go to your browser bar and Google “software engineer.” You’ll see that even there, we still have a little bit of work to do.
Tom: A little.
Paula: So, I do think there are a tremendous number of women who are making significant contributions to technology in the field. But we’re still kind of portraying it as a male-dominated, you have to be a geek kind of field. And it’s a slow thing to change through time, but the new generation has some great influences. There are lots of education opportunities out there. I mentioned I’m a veteran of volunteering with Code.org for the Hour of Code every year in December, encourage everyone out there to please sign up at Code.org. Go into the school system, particularly if you’re a woman and you have some inkling to, you know, show kids what it’s like to get into the browser and do some of these coding exercises. Just visibility to other kinds of people doing this kind of work is the place to start.
Tom: If I could just interject for a second, I’d love to hear some more from you but I just had a conversation, oh gosh, probably eight or nine months ago with Valerie Truesdale from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and one of the things she talked about was this concept of getting people into schools to teach some things about this. And one of her frustrations is that a lot of the teachers are intimidated about these ideas. They’re intimidated by the question of technology and how is technology gonna work and what needs to happen around that. And she was saying, you know, they need help at the local school system with people who can help think through, how do we equip kids and teachers to be able to do some of these things. So I love the idea of volunteering in that respect.
Paula: Oh yeah, and Code.org has an entire system. You just go and sign up and then teachers in the area have access to your profile and I’m already starting to get invitations from Code.org and I Skype into the classroom and talk about technology. Can I come into the classroom? So if you’re interested, please do help. There’s an organization called TEALS that was started by a fellow from Microsoft that also is an organization of volunteers to go into the school system. It’s also still sad to me that only 5% of high schools in the country offer any kind of AP comp sci. So I do think that you have to have early exposure to computing. I was lucky to have that exposure when I was young, and it’s just crazy to me that, in this day and age where we all depend on technology for everything, that we don’t make that a cornerstone of our public education.
Tom: Well, that’s a really interesting point. I just wanna point out, what we’ll do is we’ll take some of these links and URLs and we’ll put them in the show notes so that people can easily click on that from the website. And I think you’ve touched on something important. Somebody was talking about Millennials being, you know, so tech-savvy. And somebody else commented on that and they said, “Well, actually, they’re tech-dependent because it was the Boomers and the Gen X-ers who figured out how to make all this stuff work and now it just magically works for the Millennials.” You know, if it doesn’t work, they’re kind of shafted. So I think the idea of teaching people how things work is really important in the school system.
Paula: Exactly. And I am an engineer at heart, so like one of the first things I do when I go into a classroom is I ask the kids, “Yeah, what do you think really happens when you go to a browser, open Google, and you type some words into that?” And you get the funniest, funniest answers but it encourages the thinking about what’s really happening there. It’s like, some people will say, “Well, the computer goes somewhere.” I was like, “Well, where does it go? How does it get there, you know?” So, I think there are so many things that you could inspire natural curiosity about, which is really inspiring engineering thinking. And that’s not something that anybody should be afraid of or intimidated. I think also what I run into a lot of times is…and I have to say it is a bias of mine. I think I do hear it much more from women than men. They are much more likely to say, “Oh, I’m not technical.” And I’m like, “Do you have a cellphone? You’re technical.” So I think people, that’s the one thing that is sort of a pet peeve of mine is I wish we would just eradicate that phrase from the vocabulary. Nobody should be saying, “I’m not technical.”
Tom: Well, on that front, though, I mean, I definitely can relate because, no matter how geeky you are, there’s always somebody geekier.
Paula: Yeah, sure.
Tom: And so no matter how much experience I’ve had in my career as I moved up the ladder, there were definitely engineers who worked for me who kind of scoffed at my technical acumen because they’re like, “Well, you’re not really technical anymore,” you know.
Paula: Yeah. I think that whole thing came from Silicon Valley mindset and, you know, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose the hypercompetition. That’s not the technical environment that I grew up in at IBM. If anything, the environment at IBM came from a military background and you had a job to do. You were trained to do it. You know, it was much more pragmatic and I really don’t like the hypercompetitiveness that’s kind of evolved where you’re kind of building yourself up by tearing other people down. You know, that gets nowhere. It doesn’t really benefit anything. And I like collaborative programming. I like tossing ideas on the table and saying, “Well, that’s why this won’t work or that’s why this would work.” You know, it’s not to make people feel inferior. It’s about trying to make a better product, so…
Tom: Well, that’s interesting too because I think a lot of times we bring our own perspectives to it. I remember a brilliant engineer woman that I worked with and she was great, but she may be crazy because I felt like every idea I came up, she told me was wrong and bad. And that was my idea that I was bringing that she was saying was wrong and bad. What she was saying is, “Have you thought about X? Have you thought about Y? What about Z?” You know, and things I hadn’t thought of. And so, you know, she was making my ideas much, much better but my perception was, “Why is she always tearing me down?”
Tom: I think, absolutely, and I can see there are a lot of things that we could delve into. I’m having to hold myself back from going way off the retro [SP] with you. So, we talked about how do we set people’s vision for what it might look like for moving forward. How do we help people in the earlier years start to recognize that they might see themselves in that kind of role? But what do we do about now? How do we get people today to behave differently or think differently or to build more diversity into their teams and their solutions?
Paula: Well, I think that’s the tougher problem. I’ve definitely gotten very excited about the future generation and some of the initiatives like Code.org and TEALS in public school systems. But, you know, you have to face a reality at some point when you go to work that the people who have been in their careers, 5, 10, 15, 20 years in technology and corporate IT environments in Silicon Valley, their entire career has been shaped by their perceptions in that glorification of Silicon Valley, glorification of the geek persona phase, and that’s what they’re used to. So, you know, you can’t necessarily blame them for their perception that that’s what it means to work in tech. So, the first thing is, can those people, can everyone just take a step back and say, you know, “What was it that shaped my perception? Is that something that was, you know, media that I was fed as a young person or is that really truth or is there another way to look at it?” So, the first step is if people are open to looking at it from a different perspective. That’s the first step. And it takes a long time to change perception that’s been drilled into you for 20 years.
Tom: Yeah. I mean, as I’m kind of exploring this with you, one of the things that comes to my mind is we always told ourselves we were hiring the best people we could find and that they were the best and that’s why we were hiring them. And I think that there was truth in that, and yet we didn’t necessarily…we always like to think, “Oh yeah, we’re looking at the technical requirements. That’s really the most important thing.” But I’m not sure that we ever looked at it and said, “Should we be looking for other things? Should we be, you know, prioritizing having some diversity not because we’re trying to check the box or because we’re trying to satisfy HR, or there’s any sort of quota or something that might be addressed. But what if that helped us make a better solution?”
Paula: Sure, and that’s where the kinds of questions that you ask in an interview are important because, if you can find a way to determine if someone has a different perspective or maybe solves problems in a different way, yeah, that’s valuable. You know, it’s hard to find those questions. I remember my interview at Microsoft, you know, the classic Microsoft interview and I got the question of, you know, “Go to whiteboard and whiteboard out your card shuffle algorithm.” And I’m like, “Oh my gosh, how many times has this been asked of people? So I’m like, “Okay, fine.” So I’m like, “Well, can I have any resources that I want, anything?” And they’re like, “Oh, sure.” And I’m like, “Oh, great.” So I said, “I want, you know, basically infinite compute power and infinite storage and I want to pre-compute all 52 factorial shuffles, store it in memory and then my algorithm is randomized between 1 and 52 factorial.” And they sat back and they’re like, “Huh.”
Tom: It’s great. I love it.
Paula: That would be so fast. Yup.
Tom: I love that.
Paula: So yeah, it’s like that’s the kind of, you know, I think we need more people that are just willing to go off script and say, “Well, what could it be?” And so, you know, that’s not that…I mean I’ve had another interview where they had a written test and one of the questions was something about a link list. And I’m like, “Oh, link list. That’s like old school.”
Tom: Right on, baby. Right on. You’re speaking my language now, fella.
Paula: [crosstalk] so now, you know, double-headed, double-threaded or single-headed, double-threaded and all the benefits of each and, you know, sort of the other questions as well. And I go into the…they called me back and I was like, “Cool.” And then a fellow, you know, a younger guy and probably in his 30s walks into the room with my test and his opening line was, “Well, you did surprisingly well on the test.” And I was like, “What did that mean?”
Tom: Considering what?
Paula: So, you know, it’s all just people and you just, you know, I think that seeing a skinny, not young white woman with blonde hair wasn’t what he was expecting to hear that level of technical expertise from, so it’s like, okay. That’s a hard thing to get past but you can’t necessarily blame those people either because their perceptions are shaped by what they’ve seen in their career.
Tom: Hmm, yeah, that’s really interesting. I mean, surprisingly well compared to what?
Paula: Yeah, I don’t know.
Tom: Yeah, no, I mean but that does say a lot about, you know, what kind of thinking he was bringing to the table. I’m curious, did you move forward with that organization?
Paula: I’m a little ashamed of this but like I just got a bad vibration from that encounter, so I sat and talked to the gentleman for a few minutes and I said, “Well, you know, I’m just a hack and not really a product developer. I just was curious about this company and wanted to learn a little bit more about it.” So when I talked to my friends about that particular interview, I say it’s the only interview my life that I’ve ever thrown. I just went down on the mat and, you know…
Tom: No, but I think if we could just camp on that for a second, I think that was brilliant because so much of the time, when we’re looking for work, we are trying to sell ourselves. Our goal is to get the job offer. But it really doesn’t serve you to get a job offer if it’s for a company where you’re gonna be miserable and you’re interviewing them too and he…you know, maybe it was only that one person who carried that sort of perspective but maybe not.
Paula: Maybe not.
Tom: And so, for you to have come across that and be able to uncover that, I think that’s a very important thing, and I would argue that that was a very successful job interview for you.
Paula: Yes. Well, I actually know a little bit more about what happened to that organization through time and I would say yes, that was a successful interview for me because I, you know, Charlotte is a small town and you meet people and then there were some other comments I’ve heard about, you know, organizations imploding for cultural reasons, whether it becomes a, you know, kind of alpha male environment… And don’t get me wrong about the term “alpha male.” I’ve been on projects where I’ve been the “alpha male,” but sometimes you have to have different approaches to solving problems. Not everything is command and control.
Tom: Oh, absolutely not, absolutely not. There is always a need for somebody to make a decision, but that having been said, how you go about determining the approach to make the decision, is it a collaborative or is it a top-down decision, you know, when the house is on fire, somebody has to say, “Let’s get out.” You know, and that’s a command and control type decision. We’re not gonna discuss whether smoke inhalation [SP] is a good idea or not.
Paula: Yeah, yeah.
Tom: But there are so many times to you point that having a collaborative give and take allows us to develop far better solutions than to say, “This is the way it ought to be.” I mean, I was working with an organization. They said, “We’ve got this really talented engineer and he’s doing a great job. He’s moving up but one of the problems he has is he expects his people to solve problems exactly the way he solves problems and he’s angry with them if they don’t follow his way because his way is the way.”
Paula: Yup, that’s an approach…it all…I think some of it goes back to just good old Myers-Briggs too, so that person is definitely a J.
Tom: Right, right.
Paula: I’m a P, so I kind of understand like where my approaches to things can infuriate other personality types and you just have to try to adjust to people. At the end of the day, you can’t do all that much as one person. If you really wanna make an impact or ship large software systems or products, you need to figure out the people part.
Tom: Oh my goodness. You’re singing my song now because I’ve got this framework I call the “4 Levels of Thinking as a Geek Leader.” And I say level one is where most of us reside, which is the individual contributor. There’s only, you know, one is too small a number to achieve greatness. So if we’re gonna do something significant, we need other people. So that’s where you get to level two, where you start to think about those kinds of things. So I’d like to spend a few more minutes with you and talk about the challenges, and you’ve already touched on this, but challenges you’ve had as a woman in technology. And what are some of the things that you’ve been able to do in that process either that worked well or didn’t work. I’d be curious to hear about that.
Paula: Oh sure. And I think everyone has challenges in their career even just growing up if you have a sibling, right? And I’ve thought about some of the challenges I’ve had. I certainly haven’t handled all my challenges very gracefully through time, but some of that’s independent of whether I was male or female. But I do think there’s probably some things I’ve faced that are unique to women and some of the differences in approach. I think, over time, I’ve just come down on being more of myself. When I was making a career transition 10 years ago, the CEO and chairman was a very kind man and told me that he hoped I would find another role that would allow me to be more myself, and that stuck with me. Because over time, when you’re in that industry that has been painted as male-dominated and aggressive and, you know, certainly even Microsoft was going through antitrust progression [SP] at the time I was at Microsoft and you could learn some bad habits.
So, you know, the more in my later years, recent years, the more I’ve become myself, the less stressed I am. But then on the other hand, the more I’m myself, I am a very direct person. I like to exchange ideas openly and frankly and that doesn’t always feel good to everyone. So, it’s a balance but I have to look at myself and say, “Okay. Am I being true to myself? Am I trying to be reasonable and collaborative with people?” And as long as I’m being true to myself, I can’t control the reactions that other people have. It’s tough. I’ve also been very fortunate to have a family that’s fully supporting me in my career adventures and, you know, sometimes you have to make some tough decisions if you don’t have that kind of support.
Tom: Sure, sure. Yeah, so you’ve had to think about toning down your reaction to things to be less aggressive, is that what you’re saying?
Paula: I have done that in the past and I do think about what I’m saying when I say it, maybe more so than some of my colleagues have had to. But also I’ve always…
Tom: Geeks without a filter? Come on. Geeks? Can’t be geeks without a filter.
Paula: Yeah. And it’s funny because I’ll talk to one of the, you know, senior men in the technical organization and I’ll say, “Well, I showed this to someone and kind of pointed out that maybe there was a better way of looking at it,” and he is more like, “I wouldn’t just said that, you know, the guy is an idiot.” I’m like, “Well, you could probably say that.” And I don’t always, you know, I don’t completely filter myself but I speak in a tone that’s more, “Here’s my opinion.” I actually enjoy being an architect because I always…don’t joke, but I do state that architects don’t have control over resources, timelines, or budget. We work through influence. So I’m very free to state my opinion and say, “Hey, this is just my opinion but you might wanna look at it this way.” And if they follow that advice, that’s great. If they don’t, then something goes wrong that’s also fine. They learn something if something that I state is an opinion doesn’t work out to be, you know, the chosen route, that’s also fine. Those are other peoples’ decisions to make.
Tom: Well, and you touched on something there, I think, is very important because sometimes, the organization needs to fail. Yup, because the organization is not ready to do the thing that needs to happen. And that’s very difficult as an engineer because we tend to be very binary in our thinking, like this is the obvious right thing to do. How can you not do the right thing?
Paula: Yeah. I think we’ve lost something in these…I think of it as the Silicon Valley adolescent years of technology. I think we’ve lost a bunch of people who are, on the Myers-Briggs scale, more perceiving. We’ve encouraged a lot of judgmental people with the, you know, kind of aggressive approach that draws a lot more judgmental people and I think I am more perceiving and I’m more willing to say, “Hey, that could work but this could also work and maybe there are some tradeoffs. Let’s talk about the tradeoffs.” I think the industry has kind of driven off a lot of perceiving people and programming itself lends it to the kind of sensing judgmental where you’ve got this debugger and you’re stepping through code and it’s either right or wrong. And so, I think it will also improve diversity if we include more of the perceiving types, you know, intuitive types in the process and I see that happening on the design side and so forth. So I think it’s just a matter of time until the profession kind of levels itself back out.
Tom: You’ve raised a really good point and I think it was Marshall Goldsmith that said something along the lines of, you know, in business, unless you’re talking about a question of ethics, there’s rarely one right answer.
Paula: Exactly, yup.
Tom: And so when we commit ourselves to thinking that there’s one right answer, then, you know, obviously in a calculation, of course there’s one right answer to calculation, but so little about what we do in business when we start to solve business problems. What color should the screen be? That’s not a right or wrong.
Paula: Yeah. I think I do drive some people crazy because, you know, not everybody has the same definition of what an “architect” means and like I don’t come in and say, “Thou shalt or this is the way that it must be done.” I encourage people to do certain things in certain ways or to look at certain frameworks or to evolve where they’re going, but I’m not a thou-shalt architect. I’m a kind of player coach architect, and I think that people sometimes want there to be a thou shalt. It’s like, “Well, no, that’s why we hire smart people and you’re actually gonna have to think.”
Tom: That’s a challenge because it is hard for us to be welcome. There’s some comfort actually in just having some clarity about what we need to do, and I find the higher that we go organizationally and in business, the more ambiguity we have to manage.
Paula: Yup, yeah.
Tom: So, I think that’s a challenge because a lot of us who kind of cut our teeth on, it was right or wrong. I mean, your shuffle or your bubble sort, it either works or it doesn’t, you know.
Paula: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But that’s, you know, the world that we live in. Technology is a profession that, if you are not comfortable with change and if you’re not comfortable with evolution, you really should think about something else because I joke that, if technology was something you could just get in and put your head down and just stick with the status quo, I think I’d still be punching code on punch cards. So, I mean we look at…
Tom: A different world.
Paula: Yeah, everything is about constantly learning and constantly improving, so you just have to accept that.
Tom: No, I think you’re spot on. So, if I was a hiring manager in a company and I was thinking about adding to my team, what could I do to help break my paradigm to help me think differently, to be able to bring in people who didn’t necessarily look or think like me.
Paula: Well, I’m not a recruiting professional. I’ve done some hiring in my day but I do think, certainly in the Charlotte area, the recruiters have a lot of power over what candidates do and don’t get presented. So, the first thing I would do is I would look at my recruiting partners and really start asking them about diversity candidates, people that think outside the box and make sure that they’re not filtering people based on their own native biases. I definitely get a lot more recruiter contact for program management, product management, you know, non-technical-ish roles than technical roles. So, I think that that’s a piece of the puzzle, and certainly in Charlotte or anywhere, is know your recruiters very well and encourage them to bring you diverse candidates. If you’re not comfortable, you know, talking to diverse candidates, that’s sort of a different question but maybe that’s just about you getting out and going to different kinds of organizations or talking to the local coding camps here in Charlotte about the type of people that go to those coding camps that tend to be a very diverse crowd, and just, you know, get out there and look around, pick your head up and see what’s going on in the community.
Tom: Yeah, it’s a good point. It reminds me of something that Leslie Miley said when he was talking about building these diverse teams and he said that just because somebody doesn’t have the same educational background that you might normally want, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be a fabulous team member.
Paula: Yeah, exactly.
Tom: And I think so many times our job descriptions are fairly mechanical and in requirement, you know, must have, must have, must have. And so, being able to break free a little bit from that paradigm, and I wonder too, if you broaden your search, to your point about if more opportunities come to you in what might be called less technical roles, although I might challenge that, but for like program management or product management, then maybe the idea is to say, “Well, why don’t we open our search to also include people who have been doing those types of roles because they might be able to bring perspectives and tools and capability into us that are a better fit, you know, from the diverse perspective, to give us better solutions?”
Paula: Oh yeah, I mean even, when I was at IBM, it was still the day when they gave the PAT, or the Programming Aptitude Test, and my manager told me that some of the people who scored highest on the PAT were actually musically inclined.
Tom: Oh, absolutely.
Paula: So I think that, you know, we might be painting ourselves into a corner by only saying, “You have to have a computer science degree.” There’s a lot of work that goes on in incorporate IT that’s nowhere near what you study for a computer science degree.
Tom: Right on, right on.
Paula: And I do think that there’s a lot of room and a lot of job opportunities for…I call it kind of “journeyman programmers” that have very good logic skills and an innate ability to learn, which is an awful lot of people. And they can come into the field and be very productive. So I think if you are looking for talent, just, you know, do yourself a favor and maybe just talk to people that you might not otherwise get a chance to talk to through classic recruiting channels.
Tom: I love that. And I appreciate your thinking and your perspective and I could tell that, you know, that you and I could go on for hours.
Paula: Yeah, I do love this topic.
Tom: I’ve been enjoying you very much and I think that the audience is gonna be thrilled to be able to hear these ideas too. And I think, you know, helping us to think about these issues shapes the way that we pursue the next activity because we think about things and then we take action on them. And so, just an awareness that building more diverse team is helpful is I think the first step in the process. And then, thinking about, “Okay. Now that I’m aware, what am I gonna do differently?” So, thanks so much for being a part of the conversation today. I’ve really enjoyed having you be a part of this and…
Paula: Well, thank you.
Tom: Yeah, and that is today’s Thought Leader Segment.
Tom: Wow, this has been a long episode, and I hope you found it valuable enough to stick around. We covered a lot of ground today. We talked about how you can use the love it, hate it, can live with it approach to get a group to make a decision. We talked about Google’s Project Oxygen about team…about being a good boss and we talked about Google’s Project Aristotle and how they concluded what I concluded as a geek leader, that because people matter, we must lead them well. And then finally, we heard from Paula Paul about diversity in tech and really that’s the core message of today’s episode, how diverse teams perform better and what we can do to build better and more diverse teams.
My hack today is this. One, recognize that diverse teams do far better, regardless of technical capability. Diversity brings better results. Two, intentionally, seek out a diverse set of perspectives. Look for a diverse set of perspectives. Three, if you’re looking to hire and you’re not seeing diverse candidates, change your requirements to widen your search. Steve Jobs was right when he said, “Think different.” Want a more diverse team? Think different. And finally, bring this up with your team. Discuss the idea that diversity matters, that it leads to better solutions. Listen to the interview together and brainstorm about how you can get better ideas with diverse perspectives. And that’s today’s Episode Hack.
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This is Tom Cooper. Thanks for listening. Be sure to join me next time for another episode of Becoming a Geek Leader. Join me in my mission of discovering better ways to lead others at work and at home.